Sunday 21 December 2014

'Bionic' eye helps Michael to see a brighter future

A tiny telescope implanted in his eye is helping a Sligo man regain his independence.

Michael O’Brien at his home in Rosses Point, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly /PicSell8
Michael O’Brien at his home in Rosses Point, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly /PicSell8

VISUALISE a telescope so miniscule that it fits into your eyeball. Now imagine implanting that Lilliputian-sized gadget, measuring just four millimetres in height, in somebody's eye – just behind the iris, in fact – to help them see better.

Smaller than a pea, the telescopic implant uses the most sophisticated micro-optical technology to magnify central vision images. This provides improved 'straight ahead' vision.

Now imagine being the first Irish patient to have that telescope implanted in your eye.

In March 2013, retired medical scientist and Sligo man, Michael O Brien, was that patient – and his surgeon, Dr David Keegan at the Mater Private Hospital, led the first team outside the USA trials sector in inserting a commercial telescopic implant.

O'Brien, now aged 80, had been struggling with failing sight for some nine years when, in 2013, his wife spotted a newspaper article about trials of the miniscule telescopic implant.

Following a routine eye examination back in 2004, O'Brien was eventually diagnosed with Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of sight loss in people over the age of 50 in Ireland.

AMD affects the macula, a small part of the eye responsible for central vision which allows you to see detail.

Michael, it emerged, had the most common form of the condition, Dry AMD, which develops slowly, leading to a loss of central vision.

The father of three from Rosses Point, who has a family history of AMD – his mother had it and both of his sisters are also affected by the condition – was put on a course of medication.

Nevertheless, his sight continued to deteriorate: " I found I was closing my left eye to read the small print on the newspaper, and I was finding it more and more difficult to read and send text messages."

Over the years he met with a number of consultants and was told to maintain his regimen of medication and to avoid night driving.

In 2013 he allowed his licence to expire: "By now I felt I was in limbo. Although I was able to play golf still, I could not follow the trajectory of the ball. My friends would find it for me – they were well trained!

"I'd stopped reading by this stage – the last time I read the paper was in 2011, and that was with one eye closed.

"I could watch television, but only as long as I sat close to it. Reading text and emails was now impossible for me."

Michael asked his daughter to see if he could have the treatment – and after a thorough assessment process, the answer was yes.

"I was the first patient to have the surgery. The operation on my right eye was scheduled for March 25th, 2013," he says.

It wasn't cheap – the implant cost €12,000.

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